CLEVELAND, Ohio— Early on in the MAC Tournament championship game, Toledo’s Mikaela Boyd took a hard hit to the face. The blow left her with a bloody nose, and head coach Tricia Cullop asked if she wanted a sub.
After trainers got the bleeding to stop in a 30-second timeout, Boyd said no, and continued to play with gauze up one of her nostrils. Cullop summed up Boyd’s resilience in that moment best:
“The kid's just tough.”
The same can be said of the Toledo basketball program. Sixteen years passed without the Rockets winning a MAC title. That became ancient history on Saturday afternoon as the Rockets topped the Northern Illinois University Huskies 82-71. With the win, the Rockets clinched the MAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Boyd was named tournament MVP behind her 27 points and 14 rebounds. Both of those stats were game-high numbers.
“It's rare to have a point guard who leads you in rebounding. She's our whatever-it-takes player. Whatever we need her to do she will do without complaint,” Cullop said.
“She could be dragging up and down the floor, but she will still give us everything she has, and she is a big reason why we won today.”
Joining her in double digits were Olivia Cunningham with 20 and Mariella Santucci with 15 points. Santucci was named to the All-Tournament team along with Boyd.
In a conference tournament that was filled with upsets and close games, it’s not shocking that the championship game was no different. Heading into the last ten minutes, NIU led the Rockets 49-48.
Boyd scored 15 of her 27 points in the fourth quarter and truly put on an MVP-caliber performance. With about nine minutes to go, she tied the game at 54 with a layup. While Toledo’s offensive performance was crucial to them pulling away from the Huskies, the most important stretch of the final ten minutes happened when they held the Huskies scoreless for four minutes in the quarter and went on a 9-0 run.
“One thing coach said was we knew the team was going to make runs, and we knew we needed to be able to match those runs and get stops,” Boyd said. “I think that in the fourth quarter that's when we really, really turned it on and decided to lock down and lock them down on defense, and finally we turned the game around.”
That defensive lockdown is ultimately what swung the game in Toledo’s favor, especially considering how evenly matched the game had been through that point.
During the second quarter, it was clear Boyd was firing on all cylinders. She ended the half with eight points and eight rebounds. Outside shooting from Cunningham also rendered NIU’s two-three zone ineffective.
The Rockets had a seven-point lead with two minutes to go in the second quarter, but it was clear the Huskies were not going down quietly. Behind Ally Lehman, Renee Sladek and Janae Poisson, (who finished the game with 22, 15, and 13 points respectively) NIU tied the game at 30 heading into the locker room.
The third quarter continued to be a battle that saw neither team pull away. It wasn’t until the dramatic fourth quarter that the game ever really felt decided.
For now, the Rockets celebrate, still struggling to comprehend that they are heading to the NCAA tournament. But as their journey continues, they will continue to be the same team that plays with toughness, tenacity, and passion.
“Tonight we're going to enjoy this,” Cullop said. “You know, you never know who you're going to play. To me, that doesn't matter. I think the most important thing is that we be the best Toledo team that we can be no matter who we play, and continue to work hard and enjoy every second of this.”